Rebecca Sherman on a Holiday Tradition

In 1965, Rebecca Sherman’s mother bought the family maid a turkey for Thanksgiving. Forty-one years later, the gift remains a tradition.

photography by Dave Shafer

Got it Maid

The world was a serious place in 1965: The Vietnam War raged; Martin Luther King was arrested along with 2,600 other civil rights protesters in Selma, Ala.; Malcolm X was slain; and riots raging for almost a week burned the Watts section of LA. I was 7 years old and none of that mattered. I was consumed with more immediate troubles, such as fitting in with the crowd, always an uphill battle since my fuzzy red hair and terrible shyness acted like barbed wire around my skinny post of a body.

To my delight, the girl next door, Beth, became my best friend despite my wretchedness and despite my family’s humiliating poverty. Of course, we weren’t really poor. What we lacked, to my young mind, could be summed up in one phrase: wall-to-wall carpeting. The crumbling old cork flooring in our ’50s-era house didn’t quite cut it. Beth’s carpet was snow white and obsessively vacuumed by Ruby, her family maid. It didn’t take me long to realize that the differences between Beth’s beautiful world and my tattered one had nothing to do with carpet. It was all about Ruby. Or at least the idea of her. Most of my classmates had maids at home, even the ones whose mothers didn’t work, which was pretty much all of them. Between the moms and the maids, their floors gleamed with a hard wax shine and their tubs sparkled. Our house was a jumble of pets, muddy shoes, and bathtub rings.

So when Ella entered our household, I was thrilled. She was to clean the house while my mother was at work and watch over my sister and me after school. I still might not have been popular, but we’d come up a notch in the world: We had a “Ruby” of our own.
Things didn’t quite work out as I imagined. Toothless and hard of hearing, Ella struggled with our ancient Hoover canister vacuum like she was wrestling a python. Full of sound and little fury, the Hoover had almost no suction. She scraped the vacuum’s nozzle across the floors mightily, banging hard into the furniture, as if force might make up for lack of effectiveness. Ella would often declare to my mother after a day’s work: “House cleaning is like taking chil’ren to the bathroom, you ain’t got nothing to show for it.” Truer words were never spoken, since after a week’s worth of toil, our house was as crumb laden and dog hair ridden as ever.

Ella was let go after a few months, and that year a series of new maids came and went. My father reluctantly agreed to hire a weekly ironing maid in Ella’s stead, but this was only after my mother refused to press the tails of his white shirts, since, after all, they were tucked in, and nobody would see them. Then there was the maid who declared, upon being hired, that she hoped our family didn’t have more than one sack of trash a week because that was all she would carry out. She lasted about as long as the six bags of garbage my mother had to haul out herself.

My mother hired Carrie Pickens out of desperation from a classified ad. She arrived by bus wearing a colorful knitted cap with a green pom-pom sprouting like a weed from its center. She almost never removed the hat, and even wore it while she cleaned. I remember ducking under my desk with embarrassment at school one morning as Carrie rushed in with my forgotten sack lunch, wearing the cap. Why couldn’t we have Beth’s Ruby, I sighed, instead of this odd, Eliza Doolittle of a housekeeper? Although she was a hard worker, Carrie wasn’t very coordinated. My mother resorted to plastic cups after Carrie broke most of our glasses. We loved her anyway. The first Thanksgiving with our family, my mother bought her a 15-pound turkey just like ours. Carrie was ecstatic. That Christmas, our neighbors gave Ruby a mink coat with $100 in the pocket, an extravagance no one in my family could imagine. For the five years that Carrie worked for us, my mother brought home two turkeys at Thanksgiving. It wasn’t a mink coat, but it was enough to endear us to her. Eventually, money got tight and we had to let Carrie go.

That first Thanksgiving without Carrie, my mother sent money in the mail to cover the cost of a turkey. Some 40 years later, my mother continues to put turkey money in the mail. Carrie must be 80 by now. We have not seen her since she left our employment, but each year on my mother’s birthday, she knows to expect Carrie’s crack-of-dawn phone call asking after us as if no time had passed at all.

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